"We want change that will benefit the people"

Aliran Monthly interviews Dr Syed Husin Ali, president of Parti Rakyat Malaysia

Aliran Monthly: May we start with that interesting account in your book, Two Faces, of the attempt to get you to confess and to implicate Dr Mahathir and Musa Hitam? What was going on? Wasn’t Dr Mahathir then the newly appointed Deputy Prime Minister and Musa Hitam the Minister for Education?

syed husin

Dr Syed Husin Ali: Yes. Just to recollect, in January 1976, Tun Razak passed away and Tun Hussein succeeded him as PM. For a while there was rivalry for the position of DPM. Apparently Hussein preferred Tan Seri Ghazali Shafie, the Home Minister, who did not hold a senior position in UMNO. But the three UMNO Vice-presidents then - Ghafar Baba, Tengku Razaleigh and Mahathir Mohamad opposed his move. Faced with the possibility of an open rebellion within UMNO if these V-Ps were sidelined, Hussein finally decided to choose Mahathir, who was the most junior of the three, as his number two. This was a great blow to Ghazali.

We must remember that at that time the US was nearing defeat in Vietnam. Singapore government leaders, known to be pro-US and strongly anti-communist, were anxious to see the emergence of a friendly leader in the Malaysian gov_ern_ment. Hussein was considered to be a weak leader. At that time, Mahathir represented the more progressive wing within UMNO, and he was thought to be closely associated with Razak, who had earlier opened diplomatic relations with China, following his famous handshake with Mao Tse Tung. In Singapore, there were accusations that Razak was then surrounded by so-called "pro-communist" elements, which were alleged to continue to be around his successor.

Ghazali, who was a well-known anti-communist figure within the conservative wing of UMNO was a favourite candidate of the Singapore leaders. I think it was in the middle of 1976 that the Singapore government arrested under the ISA two Malay journalists, Hussein Jahidin and Azmi Mahmud. They implicated in their confession a number of people in Kuala Lumpur, including Samad Ismail, a senior journalist with the Straits Times, in what was branded as a "pro-communist conspiracy" against the Singapore government.

There were also others detained in Singapore at the same time, one of them accused of being a "Euro-communist". This person implicated the names of many politicians, who were active inside and outside UMNO. Not long after the Singapore arrests, the Malaysian government arrested a number of Malaysian journalists and politicians. They included Samad Ismail, Abdullah Ahmad and Abdullah Majid (both Deputy Ministers in the PM’s Department appointed by Tun Razak), Kassim Ahmad, President of PSRM and Chan Heng Kai and Tan Kok Kit from the DAP. They were all accused of being involved in pro-communist activities.

In July 1976, not long after these people were arrested and I had already been detained for about 18 months, I was taken to a secret holding centre and held in solitary confinement for more than six months. During the early part of that period, I was continuously interrogated and physically and mentally tortured. On one occasion, but just for a short while, I was questioned on Mahathir. One of the interrogators asked me to confess that I was a kind of interediary between Mahathir and the communist underground. I was assured of an early release if I co-operated. But I refused to be party to any false confession.

We must of course remember that, prior to this, a number of conservative UMNO leaders, especially Jaafar Albar, claimed that Mahathir, when he was in the limbo after being sacked by premier Tunku Abdul Rahman, made a speech in Australia, where he was supposed to have suggested that Malaysia could turn socialist by the end of the twentieth century. By implication he was a "socialist" or "pro-socialist". During detention, in the secret holding centre I kept on being reminded by my SB interrogators that "socialist" and "communist" were synonymous.

AM: So, you are saying, suggesting, that there was a conspiracy to unseat them, and you were to be the instrument via a false confession?

SH: I have reason to believe that at that time there could possibly have been a conspiracy, or at least a plan, to unseat Mahathir as DPM. If I had indulged in a false confession, and it was corroborated by the confession by another detainee at that time, then Mahathir could have well landed in detention too.

AM: Were you shocked?

SH: Not really. Those days it was common practice for the police to assassinate politically dissenters by accusing them to be "communist" or "socialist". It is quite different these days, after the cold war. Now they can be branded as "sodomists" instead. The accusations are different, but the methods of political assassination have not changed very much. You chose the enemies you want to destroy.

AM: Do you have any basis for believing it to have been a conspiracy?

SH: Let me remind you that not long after Mahathir succeeded Hussein as PM, his political secretary, Siddiq Ghouse, was accused of being a KGB agent and was arrested under the ISA. It so happened, if you remember, not long before that, a secretary of the German Chancellor Willy Brandt was arrested on the same allegation. Consequently, Brandt decided to resign his post. But of course Mahathir was not Brandt. Right until today, he will not give up his position for anything. The point I am trying to make is that someone had not given up trying to unseat Mahathir.

AM: As the officers doing the questioning were presumably Special Branch, do you think they were in on it, or were they just following orders? If the latter, would it be dangerous—that is, to expose yourself to possible slander or libel suits—for you to suggest whose orders?

SH: Well, well, well. I cannot imagine the SB officer interrogating me was entirely his own agent. I doubt he could have acted independently.

AM: Who was then the head of the Special Branch?

SH: I think it was one Tan Seri Amin. I cannot recall his full name.

AM: And who was the IGP at the time?

SH: None other than Haniff Omar, now Tun and many things else.

AM: We hope you don’t mind, but can we follow up a little more on this matter? Your account evidently ties in with Samad Ismail’s declaration in September that he was made to confess to trumped-up charges. We believe that was the first time that Samad has publicly declared thus. What about the other two who were detained at the same time, Abdullah Majid and Abdullah Ahmad?

SH: Actually, I have not seen Samad’s declaration that you talk about. As I wrote in Two Faces, after his release, I told Samad of the attempt to persuade me to make a false confession to implicate Mahathir. Samad said there was a similar attempt on himself. If I am not mistaken, Abdullah Ahmad has made a statement about his wrongful detention. He had followed this up with one or two articles about his detention in The Sun. Abdullah Majid has been bed-ridden for a number of years and I cannot recollect any statement by him after his release. Kassim has written a "memoir" on his detention, called The Second University.

AM: Have you all ever discussed this period with each other?SH: Other than my short discussion with Samad, no.

AM: And have you ever discussed it with Dr Mahathir or Musa?

SH: No.

AM: In the light of events over the past year and more, on which you have been very vocal, do you ever have any regrets that you did not confess as desired of you? After all, you might have ‘saved’ the country from Dr Mahathir, for he would surely have been knocked out then. <laughter>

SH: No regrets at all. An evil person should be properly tried in an open court and duly punished if found guilty. I think it is wrong to make false allegation on anyone, that could lead to his detention under the ISA. After all I have always been against this draconian act and its abuse. Even if I had the opportunity to save the country from Mahathir then, there was no guarantee that he would be replaced by someone better.

AM: You have been supportive of Anwar since his dismissal, and your party has now joined a coalition with Parti Keadilan Nasional, PAS and the DAP. Yet you were rather critical of him while he was in office, and kept a fair distance from him. Why this change of heart?

SH: Let me be candid in saying that although Anwar was my friend and for some time my friend and detention mate, I do not support him now merely on that basis. Much more than just supporting Anwar, I am against the way in which he was unjustly treated and humiliated. Why was he beaten up? Why was he held under the ISA?

Why has he not been allowed bail? Why do the courts and police appear to be so one-sided against him? So, the issues have gone beyond Anwar. We support him because, to a certain extent, he has become a symbol or rallying point in the struggle for justice and democracy. For the same reason, we support Lim Guan Eng and hundreds of Malaysians who in various ways have been victims of all kinds of injustices.

It must also be emphasised that PRM has agreed to co-operate with keADILan, PAS and the DAP not merely on the basis of seeking freedom for Anwar or Guan Eng. We want economic, political and social changes, which can benefit the people. We are against concentration of power and wealth in the hands of a corrupt few; we want to reduce economic and social inequity; we want cheaper and, if necessary and possible, free housing, education and medical services; we want better management and regular supply of water and electricity; we reject the present form of privatisation, which is burdensome to the people; we reject tolls and so on; and we want change that will benefit the people at large. In other words there are many things in common shared by the opposition parties.

AM: But surely you, with all your connections, must have heard all those stories about Anwar’s boys, and about his use of money politics? Why then should you believe that Anwar’s reformasi call now is sincere, and not just an attempt to ride on popular discontent in order to return to power? Many people out there are saying Anwar and Mahathir are the same—in Malay, dua kali lima—and this is all a power struggle in which we ordinary citizens shouldn’t get involved. Either side wins, things are going to be the same. What is your response to that?

SH: Admittedly, Anwar gathered some cronies of his own when he was in power. But Anwar’s cronies were relatively much less powerful than Mahathir’s. Now, many of them have changed sides to Mahathir, where power is centred. Anwar and his supporters may well have practised money politics, when they were part of the establishment. Now Anwar has come out very strongly against cronyism, corruption and nepotism. He is paying very heavily for his opposition to his once political master. At the same time a lot of people have faith and much hope in him. I am willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.

My political philosophy and struggle are not linked to just an individual. More important, they are linked to policies, programmes and also ideology. Anwar is but a component although an important one in the wave for change. I hope this wave will become ever bigger and stronger, whatever the decisions or moves by individual leaders.

Change of, for and by the people must and should take place, whoever is the leader. If the people are the prime movers of this change, then whoever leaves it will certainly fall by the wayside. The fight now cannot be viewed anymore as a personal fight between Anwar and Mahathir. It is a fight for change of the society and its politico-economic systems. So, all citizens should be involved. I feel that after all that he has undergone, it is difficult for Anwar to go the Mahathir way. It is difficult to say that both of them are the same, especially now.

AM: OK. Say we accept your response and accept that the alternative coalition is sincere and serious about instituting changes to bring about greater transparency and accountability, justice and democracy. But many people have serious doubts. They have doubts about your ability to unite and stand together behind a programme. They have doubts about your ability to govern, given your total lack of experience.

SH: The only thing I can say is that we are trying hard and determined to co-operate and be more united this time round. People may be justified if they feel that we lack experience. But it does not take very long to gain experience. After all, a change in the government leadership through election does not involve radical changes in the structure of the bureaucracy, the army and the police, for example. If these remain intact, then certainly they will be of great help to the new government in power. Tell me, which is better? Inexperienced leaders who are willing to govern for the benefit of the people in a clean and accountable manner, or an experienced but docile and corrupt bunch of leaders who are interested only in preserving their own positions and interests, and bailing out their cronies in trouble?

AM: Many people are saying, "Look, the country is going through a rough period and we need a strong government, especially at this time. We are just not sure that the opposition coalition can provide that kind of leadership". Do you have an answer to that?

SH: Give us a chance. If we prove incompetent, then throw us out. Change of government can be good, because it can create healthy competition between the contending parties. The fear of being thrown out can spur a government to do well. It is bad when a government or a leader remains in power too long. It tends to make them more authoritarian and more negligent of the interests and fate of the people. They become more obsessed with building palaces for themselves rather than solving the housing problem of the poor. That is why we believe no PM should serve for more than two terms.

AM: But surely you don’t deny that there are significant differences within your coalition among the various parties. Won’t that be a weakness as compared to the Barisan Nasional, whose coalition members appear to be united? How do we know that PAS won’t try and push through their Islamic agenda or DAP its Malaysian Malaysia agenda or PRM its social democratic agenda, and so on?

SH: No, I don’t deny that. But for the short and medium terms, there are more similarities than differences among the different parties. As it is now, we are all committed to upholding the basic principles and spirit of the Federation Constitution, which have been abandoned or violated by the powers-that-be. The BN component parties represent different and sometimes opposite ethnic interests. What holds them together is power - being the government. If their position as a government is weakened and, worse still, when they lose power, everything will break asunder.

At the same time, I am sure that if the opposition parties form the government, then they will be united. Of course, in the long run, there might be competition and even conflicts owing to the differences in policies and ideologies. But certainly competition can be healthy and some conflicts can become very productive. Let us now build a political atmosphere that guarantees greater space and freedom for dissent and healthy competition to serve the people.

AM: What is the opposition coalition’s objective in this coming election? Is it going for a win or simply to deny the Barisan Nasional a two-thirds majority?

SH: With all the power that they have and the resources that they control, the BN government has become formidable. It has control over the three M’s i.e. money, media, and (government) machinry. So it will be difficult to defeat the government. Nevertheless, nothing is impossible in politics, especially when the mood of people changes. A large section of the Malays now want change. Quite a significant number of non-Malays, especially the elderly, those in business and some professionals are quite fearful of change in case it affects adversely their business and livelihood. To ensure continuity and stability, we should be talking now about the necessity of a National Unity government consisting of politicians from the alternative parties, positive elements within the present governing parties and respected individuals within society from among NGOs.

AM: As it will be unfair for us to question you on the coalition platform, we would instead like to explore with you Parti Rakyat’s stand on a number of issues. Let’s start with capital controls and government expenditure to revive the economy. We believe it would be fair to say that Parti Rakyat is not opposed to capital controls as such nor are you opposed to government expenditure to revive the economy. Why then are you so critical of the BN’s use of these measures?

SH: There are several reasons for our criticisms. First, any form of control is difficult to implement successfully in a system based almost entirely on free market.

Second, the capital control measures were introduced too late, about 14 months after the economic crisis began. Much capital had already flown. As some people say, it was like closing the cage after the birds had flown away. Capital that chose to remain or left late, some of which was good capital, was "punished".

Third, the measures were calculated mainly to benefit big corporations and corporate figures that could be identified as cronies.

Fourth, government expenditure mainly for whom? and for what purpose? Certainly we are opposed to the revival of mega projects that are not economic, not productive. We certainly would support more expenditure on economic and productive projects and for providing social facilities like housing, health and education for the people. Why is it so little is spent on human resource development, for instance?

Finally, we have not recovered economically, but are only on the way to recovery. Signs of recovery can be seen in almost all the countries affected by the Asian financial crisis since two years ago. But the recovery is much faster in some of the countries that never exercised capital controls. For instance, during the first quarter, the growth rate in Korea was over 4.5 percent and in Indonesia it was about 1.5 percent. But in Malaysia it was about -1.5 percent (negative). What is the hoo-ha about?

AM: Is that fair? After all, Danaharta and Danamodal and the Corporate Debt Restructuring Committee was set up under Anwar. Moreover, they appear to be doing quite a good job of overcoming the bad debt problem and re-financing the banking sector. Or don’t you agree?

SH: The fact the Anwar set up Danaharta, Danamodal and CDRC was a credit to him. It proved that he was not blindly following the IMF recommendations. The idea behind the setting up of these bodies was good. But, unfortunately, under the present Finance Ministers, they are increasingly used mainly for the purpose of bailing out cronies and crony companies. For instance, Renong (under Halim Saad) and Tongkah (under one of Mahathir’s sons), have benefited from the CDRC.

AM: How do you think we should proceed on the economic front?

SH: Our economy is strongly influenced by the global process. We need to be involved, but wisely, in the global economy. Malaysia needs to have measures that can prevent itself from being a victim of the powerful global capital market. Our future depends very much on our ability to compete and to penetrate into the global market.

At the same time, there must be corporate governance that ensures transparency and is free from undesirable political intervention. The evil practices of corruption, cronyism and nepotism, which have become widespread under the BN government especially during the past 15 years, have weakened our economy and threaten the future of our country and people. They must be stopped. So too, there must be an end to the use of the country’s resources on wasteful, unproductive and uneconomic projects.

Further, we need to mobilise our economic resources for good use them to provide good and affordable social services, especially housing, health and education. Our concern should be more for the welfare of the majority of people and not the interests of a few who are rich and powerful. To modify Gandhi’s words, there should be enough for everyone’s need but not everyone’s greed.

AM: Correct us if we are wrong, but you also believe the country needs social and political reforms? Why so? We are relatively stable politically, socially the country has done pretty well compared to some others. So why rock the boat?

SH: There is still room for improving our political and social systems. Over the years authoritarian rule has increasingly crystallised within our political structure; in fact more and more power is being concentrated in the hands of a small number of people, if not just in one person. We may be able to prevent this from happening probably by limiting the tenure period of a minister, especially the Prime Minister. I think two terms is more than reasonable. We must also get rid of all repressive laws that violate human rights, especially the draconian ISA and the Publication and Printing Presses Act.

The economic system that allows for concentration of wealth has resulted not only in poverty and a wide economic gap, but also in great social differences and inequities. There is need to bridge the wide socio-economic gap, which seems to be ever widening. Furthermore, overemphasis on economic and physical development and neglect of human and spiritual values have given rise to all kinds of social problems. Values in society have become distorted. It is very difficult to provide role models for our youths, especially from the present day leaders in the country.

AM: What about the NEP/NDP?

SH: These should not be used for the purpose of enriching only a few people. In the name of the Bumiputras and their rights and privileges, the powerful few in the country have managed to monopolise power and wealth for themselves and their cronies, who consist of Malays as well as non-Malays. There is need for regular and thorough evaluation or appraisal of these policies to ensure that they will really be implemented in the best way to improve the lot of the people.

AM: Can we now turn to your personal side? You have been associated with dissident movements since your youth, in movements such as ASAS 50, then subsequently in Parti Rakyat. Why so, given that some of your concerns about wealth re-distribution were taken up by the Barisan Nasional?

SH: Let me emphasise that just redistribution of wealth has not taken place in this country. Contrary to the claims made by the BN leaders and despite the recognised achievements in economic growth, the problems of concentration of wealth and socio-economic inequity have actually deteriorated. A handful few have become dirt rich mainly through corrupt methods, and they seem to be immune from any form of action, much less prosecution.

Besides corruption, many other social and moral problems have worsened. Why concentrate only on bringing to book the small and medium sized fish? What about the big vicious sharks? In this country, they may number only around twenty. The BN leaders may have taken up our policies, but they have only turned them into slogans and rhetoric, devoid of substance.

AM: Would it be fair to say that, in some way, you too have been a beneficiary of BN government policy when you were given an opportunity to do your PhD at the London School of Economics? Is it not ingratitude to criticise the BN government?

SH: Sorry buddy. I paid for my PhD from my own pocket as a lowly paid lecturer. In fact, I even had to borrow, although I lived very modestly in London.

AM: How has your family taken to your life of dissidence? After all, there must have been times when you must have been invited to join UMNO, possibly even with a promise of a post of some prominence?

SH: Thank God, my wife has always been my strongest pillar of support. My children, who are grown up now, are full of understanding.

AM: Finally, can you summarise for us your vision of Malaysia in 2020?

SH: It is a country where our diverse people can live harmoniously with full human dignity and rights as an integrated national entity. There should be no room for ethnic-based political processes and parties which are divisive and destructive. There should be no concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a sprinkling few, which can lead to vast socio-economic inequities and an authoritarian political system.

The wealth of the country should be fairly redistributed by, among other things, better wages and working conditions for the workers (skilled and unskilled) and more and cheaper social services, especially housing, education and health. Prices of daily necessities should be reasonably controlled by fighting monopoly. And tolls which continue to increase should be reviewed, with the purpose of abolishing them. Water and electricity supply should be regular and uninterrupted. Public monopoly and inefficiency should not be transferred into private monopoly and inefficiency through privatisation or corporatisation.

This country is at the crossroads of rich cultures and civilisations of the world and we have benefited from them. We should continue creatively to further enrich our own cultures by opening to this international cultural heritage. Technological and industrial growth must be encouraged to improve the general livelihood of the people and not to encourage control and monopoly which can further widen social inequities among the people. High moral values must be drawn from our different cultures and religions and strengthened among the young through good education, so that they can serve as strong buttresses against all forms of moral decadence and corruption associated with negative westernisation.

Certainly I would like to see a much better country, society and people in 2020 than now.

AM: And why should the people support you, your party or the opposition coalition? Why not simply stick with a proven formula, warts and all? Why risk something new and untested?

SH: We believe that our policies and programmes are much better for the people than those of the BN. The BN formula has proven itself to be in favour of a small coterie of the rich and powerful and discriminates against the majority. It has made life more difficult for the common people because, as a result of privatisation and lack of reasonable control, the cost of housing, education, health, tolls and the prices of daily necessities have continued to rise and become more burdensome. It serves some people’s greed, not most people’s need. The system is ridden with corruption, cronyism and nepotism at the highest level. There is lack of morality and plenty of double standards among the leaders. It is rotting to the core. Under these circumstances, change is necessary, in fact, inevitable, whether with or without the present leadership. Isn’t life change itself? Why fear change, especially when it provides an opportunity for improvement?